Editor’s note: Thanks to travel correspondent Stephanie Arsenault for venturing all the way to Canada’s Atlantic coast to visit “The Maggies” for us. Not exactly next door from Arsenault’s home here in Calgary, Alberta but definitely, she tells us, worth the epic journey!
If you mention in conversation with another Canadian that you’re traveling to The Magdalen Islands – or Les Iles-de-la-Madeleine – you’re most likely to get the following response:
“Where? Oh, right, you mean those islands owned by France.”
You then explain that no, these islands are part of Quebec and therefore Canadian which typically elicits:
“Yes, but you still need a passport to get there, right?”
“The Maggies” – as the locals call them – are made up of 12 islands located 95 km from Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island. (Not be be confused with Saint Pierre and Miquelon, another small fleet of islands located near Newfoundland that are, indeed, governed by France.)
Rich with culture and alarmingly beautiful, this little unsung archipelago located off Canada’s east coast is a seriously charming place to visit.
Just how lovely are these islands? Now that I’ve been, I’m convinced everyone should have Les Iles de la Madeleine at the top of their bucket list.
Why? Well, here are 10 uniquely Madelinot experiences to be had, just to get the conversation started.
1. If sand and solitude are your thing, then you’ve come to the right place. Technically, sand dunes make up 30 per cent of The Magdalen Islands. Lounging amongst the dunes on a summer’s day – especially with a blanket and picnic in tow – is a lovely, lazy thing to do.
2. Lookin’ for a little more action? Head to Parc de Gros-Cap on Grindstone Island and burn off some steam on a sea kayak or a trimaran sailboat. Windy days mean wild waves but the effort’s worth it. This is the best way to catch a glimpse of the area’s high red cliffs, water-carved caves and unique bird life (including the likes of Bonaparte’s Gulls, Greater Yellowlegs and Whimbrels.)
3. Want to wind down your day with a pint of craft beer? Whether you’re after something hoppy, floral or earthy – you definitely want to check out Grindstone Island’s Microbrasserie A l’abri de la Tempete. Just follow the catchy blue road signs featuring mugs of beer and you’ll know you’re on the right track.
4. Treat your taste buds to House Harbour Island’s Fromagerie du Pied-De-Vent. Be sure to try their fresh (and SUPER squeaky) cheese curds as well as their trademark Pied-De-Vent, which is a soft, raw cow’s milk cheese. If you are unable to visit the fromagerie, you’ll have a chance to try this island specialty at markets everywhere or, alternatively, in Madelinot restaurants where it’s served with practically everything.
5. Satisfy your sweet tooth at Helene des Iles. The shop’s exterior is colourful and charming, more fitted to the pages of a storybook than the side of a road which is where you’ll find it (on House Harbour Island). Meanwhile, the interior resembles a well-equipped home kitchen. What do I recommend? Caramels Fleur de Sel, Coco-Chocolat Macaroons and absolutely any of the home-made pies-of-the-day.
6. Are you an honest-to-goodness beach bum like me? Then you won’t be able to get enough beach time on these islands. Continuously rated among Canada’s top beaches, they’re covered in white, I mean PURE white, sand. And the water, while chilly, is crystal clear and turquoise and looks as though it’s been delivered straight from a Caribbean postcard. Word has it the ocean warms up between Aug and Sept, making it perfect for splashin’ around in.
7. Lighthouses figure prominently in The Magdalen Islands – physically as well as historically – so be sure to visit one. If even to see how, before modern day technology, ships were shepherded through these difficult parts. Before the introduction of lighthouses, hundreds of ships sunk in the surrounding waters making many of today’s Madelinots, it’s said, descendants of those who were shipwrecked.
8. Lovers of boats, seafood and maritime culture must stop at one of the islands’ marinas. The main one, at Cap-Aux-Meules, is where the ferry from Prince Edward Island docks. It’s also where many of the working fishermen tether their boats. Check these guys out as they’re setting up fishing gear, unloading a day’s catch or cleaning mussels before this delicious shellfish is packed up and shipped to market.
9. La Grave, the region’s first Acadian settlement on the southeast side of Havre-Aubert, genuinely feels like a step back in time. Original buildings remain intact but have turned white and grey-washed with time – a sign of resilience in the face of centuries of stormy ocean weather. If you visit today, you’ll find lively cafes, bistros, gift shops, a marine museum and a small marina. Time your schedule so you can catch one of the epic sunsets enjoyed from this historic location.
10. The food of The Magdalen Islands is a delectable combination of classic French and Maritime cuisine. Must-try restaurants? La Grave’s Vent du Large. Cafe La Grave. Le Refectoire at Domaine du Vieux Couvent. Lobster poutine. Seal Sausage with cranberries and cheese. Snow crab mousse. Oh my. You’ll want to try it all. I suggest you do!
*Postscript – Chateau Madelinot is a great base for exploring the islands – offering cozy accommodations and gorgeous views. Domain du Vieux Couvent is a lovely option for those looking for extra comfort and luxury. The on-site restaurant, which features locally-inspired fare, is nothing short of spectacular. On a final note, if you’re wondering about how to find your way to this lovely and unsung fleet of, yes, Canadian, islands – check out this link for info.
*Have you been to The Magdalen Islands before? What did you enjoy most about your visit? Feel free to comment on Stephanie’s story and tell us your thoughts. We’d love to hear from you!
*Note to readers: Our writer travelled courtesy of Destination Quebec. The agency did not review or approve the article before publication.
Janet Miller commented:
My husband and I were there in February this year 2014 to see the harp seal pups. Fabulous trip provided by WANT Expeditions but available from Chateau Madelinot who open just for the two week period of this birthing. A privilege to see these dear creatures. Worth the trip. I love Canada in the winter.
Liz Reid commented:
Gorgeous photographs. I spent a week there last summer with my dog. Sheer bliss! Rented a cottage on the sea. Beautiful sunsets every evening. I loved the dunes du nord beach. I also loved the little Anglican church in Grosses Ile where there is a gorgeous trio of stained glass windows of Jesus ( in rubber boots) and the fishermen. It is open to the public and well worth the visit. Artisan du sable collect sand from all over the world. If you go to,a beach anywhere you can send them the sample of sand and they will display in on their walls along with all the other samples. Simply marvellous to see.